How and When Experience in a President Counts

Executive Summary

Experience has become a dominant issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. Initially thought to be an open contest, the range and types of candidate experience have varied substantially: sitting and former senators, representatives and governors, and a former mayor and first lady. At this writing the campaign has narrowed to three candidates: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a tight race for the Democratic nomination; John McCain having secured the Republican nomination.

The contrast in Washington-based experience among these three is striking. McCain leads in elective service with four years in the House of Representatives and just over 20 years in the Senate. Clinton is in her eighth year in the Senate; Obama in his third year.

Experience prior to elective government service in Washington has also been identified as relevant for accrediting candidacies. McCain’s military background, including his time as a prisoner of war, is judged to be authentication for serving as commander in chief. Obama announced his opposition to the Iraq war while serving in the Illinois State Senate, arguably demonstrating his judgment even before election to the U. S. Senate. And Clinton’s time as first lady, from 1993-2001, is relied on as providing superior preparation on Day One to be chief executive and essentially a heir apparent.Each of these rationales for candidacy and election has strengths and weaknesses. McCain has length of service but has never held a major executive position and would be 72 years old when sworn in as president. Obama has the freshness of youth but, equally, limited time as a U. S. senator and no elective executive background. Clinton’s reliance on heir apparentness intimates familiarity with White House operations but raises questions about a first lady’s role and accountability in making decisions.

Stress on experience justifies a review of the historical record. This paper will treat the following questions: Is the 2008 presidential election an open contest? How common are open contests? When have they occurred? What are the types of heirs apparent as candidates? Which presidencies have been successful? How might the historical experience of experience apply to 2008?

Suffice to say in this preview that Mt. Rushmore’s faces include but one president with significant White House experience before serving. That would be the likeness of Thomas Jefferson who ran in 1800 against the president with whom he was serving as vice president—a case of doubtful precedence.